After 'remarkable' season, Cards out in WC
The Cardinals’ bats made noise in the first two games of the National League Wild Card Series against the Padres this week, but in the game in which the offense mattered most, it was nowhere to be found.
Defensive mistakes late in the game led to the Cardinals’ 4-0 loss at Petco Park, bringing an end to their season, but the overarching storyline of the night was the Cardinals’ overarching storyline of the season: Their offense. It mustered only four hits off a Padres pitching staff strung together into a bullpen day by manager Jayce Tingler. The Cardinals faced nine Padres relievers and struck out eight times.
They were 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and left nine on base. Their season ended with three called strikeouts from Padres closer Trevor Rosenthal.
“It was one of those games where you’re a hit or two away, and we just weren’t able to get them,” manager Mike Shildt said. “They had a plan and executed it.”
Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty was everything he needed to be and more. He struck out eight Padres and limited the damage done against him. Before Fernando Tatis Jr. and Eric Hosmer strung two doubles together for the Padres’ first run, Flaherty stranded six baserunners. The Cardinals right-hander dialed it up to 97 mph and then varied his fastball speed while mixing in the wipeout slider. His 110th and final pitch of the night was a fastball on the inside corner to freeze Austin Nola and get out of the sixth inning with just one run allowed.
“That’s why Jack’s an ace,” Shildt said. “That’s what they do. He stepped up on a big stage tonight, and he did his part to more than give us a chance. Heck of a job.”
Throughout everything the Cardinals had been through on the field this season, they always felt they could count on their defense. It carried them through the regular season and showed its strength earlier this series. But it unraveled when Flaherty turned the game over to the Cardinals bullpen.
"In a game like this, it’s a winner take all, you got to accept the fact that you may lose," Flaherty said. "You may lose games like this. All you can do is give the best effort you possibly can. If you go out and give the best effort you possibly can, the results are going to be the results. Today, the ball didn’t bounce our way. Guys were out there and they gave everything they had. They gave everything they had all year. That’s what this team was about.”
Jake Cronenworth led off the seventh with a single off reliever Alex Reyes, and then Trent Grisham hit a ball to second baseman Kolten Wong for a play that he typically makes look so easy.
Friday was the rare time it didn’t go smoothly. Wong’s throw to Paul DeJong at second base was wide, erasing a chance at a double play, and Cronenworth reached third on the error. Shildt then walked Tatis to load the bases for Manny Machado, and the move would have worked if not for another costly defensive play.
Machado hit a chopper to third baseman Tommy Edman, who jumped up and caught it. But in his haste to throw home and prevent a run from scoring, he missed landing on third base, instead landing right in front of the bag. The throw was low enough that Yadier Molina couldn’t get to it smoothly, and the Padres scored their second run of the night. Reyes followed that by walking in the third.
Cronenworth put the game out of hand with a solo home run in the bottom of the eighth inning, sending San Diego to Arlington to face the Dodgers in the neutral-site National League Division Series.
“[The defense] has been part of the reason we’ve been in so many games we’ve played,” Shildt said. “We played in a lot of close games, and that’s been our backbone, the defense. Those plays end up making differences in big games, but I will say this, we made a lot of them. So I’m not going to be very critical of those. Without our defense, we wouldn’t be here.”
The Cardinals faced unusual challenges even for an unusual season. A coronavirus outbreak paused their season for 17 days in August, forcing them to play 11 doubleheaders and 53 games in 44 days. It rewrote the trajectory of the 2020 Cardinals.
That’s why in the postgame comments from Shildt and players, “proud” was the word mentioned the most.
“It was a really, really tough season for us,” Molina, who is a free agent this offseason, said. “Really, really tough season. But we battle. I’m so proud of these guys, this group. We battled so hard. Every day we came ready to play. No matter who we’re facing. I’m proud. Obviously we want to advance. It is what it is, but we work hard and we fought. We fought hard.”
The Cardinals entered the postseason making it clear that they weren’t just happy they got there. They wanted to win. It didn’t happen in 2020, and now they enter the unknown of this offseason trying to evaluate a season unlike any other.
“As you get a little older, you appreciate and hopefully have a little wisdom to be able to see a bigger picture than baseball,” Shildt said. “Obviously that’s why we’re here, it’s about wins and losses, I’m not trying to sugarcoat that. We know how this business works. But this is a special group of men that I respect highly.
“We’re not satisfied with the season being over in the Wild Card. I want to make that perfectly clear. Nobody in that clubhouse is satisfied. There’s some disappointed people in that clubhouse. But there’s also, from my seat, a sense of satisfaction. In an unusual year, we had the most unusual. And we were able to get what we got with a lot of different, well-documented things. Remarkable is probably the first word that comes to my mind.”